I like being spoiled rotten

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

If you haven’t yet seen Titanic, I won’t spoil the ending for you. Just try not to invest emotionally in the boat, or the blond guy. At least one of them will go on to make The Man in the Iron Mask.

Some people become quite touchy about coming across “spoilers” before watching a film or when immersed in a TV series. Personally, I quite like to know what I’m letting myself in for. I also prefer to jump around in books – skipping ahead a few chapters, or reading the end first, just so I know I’m heading towards a good bit. It helps me get through descriptions of military techniques, or sunsets, or the part where Jack teaches Rose to “spit like a man”.

This has been known to annoy people, but a recent study is very much on my side. It finds that I’m simply getting the best out of the story: too much narrative suspense can turn us off, rather than hooking us in. In fact, when following a plot, we don’t like surprises any more than the passengers on the Titanic did. 

The study conducted by Nicolas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt took 30 undergraduates and gave them a mix of short stories to read. There were three kinds: mysteries, literary stories, and stories with an ironic twist. Everyone got one unaltered story, another with a spoiler in the preface, and a third with the spoiler woven into the narrative. When they measured the subjects’ levels of enjoyment, the researchers found something odd.  The spoiled stories were far more pleasurable than the unspoiled.

Why was this? The researchers thought it meant that plots are just excuses for showing off great writing. The enjoyable bit is the way the story is told, the plot itself an irritating distraction. Best to get all that wearying intrigue out of the way right at the start.

They thought this could also apply to film. Story telling is always a mix of tension and resolution, but knowing the iceberg definitely “does a Trenton Oldfield” in the end frees us up to appreciate the more subtle tensions – those between characters, and those between shots. It also gives us the pleasure of anticipation. We really don’t like having to worry about whether the boy gets the girl, or whether the villain dies, or whether the gob that Kate Winslet spits off the balcony and onto the snooty lady’s hat will be adequately apologised for later (no).

Take note, film makers. You may have enjoyed making Inception (another great Leonardo film), but that’s absolutely no reason to make the rest of us suffer. Go home, think about what you have done, then remake Pride and Prejudice, again. It’s what we all want.

Spoiler alert: he doesn't make it. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The puppet master

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.